This moth supplements its diet with bird tears

In the forests of Brazil lives a moth that drinks tears of birds. It perches quietly at the back of an antbird at night – when the bird’s not very active – and uses its long, flexible proboscis to lap up its tears. Don’t believe me? See for yourself!

*I’m not crying; there’s something in my eye*

You can read the story behind the video over at Science magazine.

Multimedia credits: Leandro Moraes

Caterpillar vs. Beetle: Who wins?

I have a new video story up at Science magazine about an amazing moth caterpillar that fights off things that try to eat it, including beetles that are called ‘caterpillar hunters’. Check it out, folks!

The accompanying short story is available to read here.

Multimedia credit: Shinji Sugiura

Inside the secret world of bamboo-breeding frogs

Meet the white-spotted bush frog, a species that is fascinating on several counts. For one, it breeds inside bamboos (yes, in the hollows of the fast growing woody grasses).

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To convince a female to have kids with him, a male frog first finds a nice spot – a bamboo stem with a tiny hole just big enough to get through – and then sings to impress.

If a female likes it, she enters the bamboo, lays her eggs and immediately calls it quits. Daddy babysits alone (and mamma moves on to make more babies).

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A month later, their round see-through eggs hatch directly into mini versions of their parents, instead of tadpoles.
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The florescent froglets stay put for a while before going it alone. Until they leave, their doting dad guards them round the clock, forgoing his hunt for food. He eats insects that stray into the bamboo cavity – things like ants and flies.
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While daddy does his duty, he aggressively croaks to warn other male frogs against stepping on his patch.

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And with good reason: rival males can make a quick meal of his eggs. They are hungry and, it turns out, cannibals. Eggs, as is obvious, are rich in nutrients and if left behind by their dad, have little chance of survival. Scientists recently uncovered these aspects of the bamboo-breeding frogs using an endoscope – a medical device typically used to peer inside our bodies.

What makes matters worse for the frogs, besides cannibalism, is that they are a critically endangered species existing nowhere but in India’s Western Ghats, a chain of mountains alongside the country’s west coast.

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And given the harvesting pressure facing their bamboo nursery, the frogs need all the help they can get. Finding out where the frogs live outside of reserves can identify bamboo stands worth protecting. Another useful thing would be to stop cutting down bamboo during monsoons, which is when the frogs breed. You can do your bit by spreading the word on a more detailed piece I wrote about these frogs for Mongabay-India.

Photo, sound and video credit: Seshadri K.S. (Many thanks to him for sharing the multimedia and giving permissions for use)

Monkeys eat—and then floss

Monkeys living on an island have learned to use a startling variety of tools and techniques to obtain the juicy innards of different foods – and to floss their teeth afterwards.

The Nicobar long-tailed macaque is only found on three islands in the eastern Indian Ocean. One of them is Great Nicobar Island. Many of the macaques’ favoured foods are thorny, slimy, hairy or mucky. To get rid of these inedible coatings, the macaques either wash the foods in puddles or wrap them in leaves and rub them clean.

The macaques eat coconuts too, plucking them from the tree by twisting them around or using their teeth to cut them off. If it is tender, the macaques de-husk the coconut using their teeth. (As someone who’s tried husking a coconut at home, it takes some knife skills 🙂 but these monkeys do it with their teeth!)

After eating, macaques clean their teeth – they were seen holding a fine fibre between their teeth and pulling at it. The macaques used a range of materials as dental floss: a tree needle, a bird feather, a blade of grass, a coconut fibre, a nylon thread and a metal wire. (I wondered if the need to floss comes from all that coconut husk getting stuck in the teeth, but no). They did so after eating various foods in different habitats, the researchers told me.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, read the rest of the story published in New Scientist here.

Mites squatting on spider webs steal food

In caves in Brazil, there lives a newly-discovered mite that is a freeloader. Groups of these mites live on a spider’s web and steal its food. They are the first mites known to do this.

Leopoldo Ferreira de Oliveira Bernardi at the Federal University of Lavras in Minas Gerais first saw live mites dotting a spider web by the entrance of Brazil’s Lapa Nova cave in 2007. The relationship between mites and spider immediately intrigued him.

After observing the same thing in another cave, Bernardi and his colleagues designed an experiment. They placed live bait – a cave moth – on the web of a recluse spider where mites were present.

The spider immediately attacked the moth and began feeding. But in the next 5 to 40 minutes, mites, which were previously scattered all over the web, gathered to feed on the moth.

To know what happens next, please visit New Scientist here.

Photo credit: Professor Rodrigo Lopes Ferreira

Monkey mom eats mummified baby

Evalyne9bisPrimates are known both to grieve their loved ones and practice cannibalism, but for the first time, scientists have recorded a Tonkean macaque eating her dead baby.

Researchers studying macaques at the Parco Faunistico di Piano dell’Abatino animal sanctuary observed a new mother named Evalyne “caring” for her deceased infant for weeks, and then consuming its mummified body until nothing but a single bone remained.

Tonkean macaques—which are native to Southeast Asia—tote around their babies’ corpses for hours or, even days. It could be a manifestation of grief, or an absence of understanding that the offspring is dead.

“This kind of behavior has been documented in chimpanzees and a few other primates, with mothers carrying their dead infant until it disintegrates,” notes Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University who was not involved in the new research.

To read more, go to National Geographic news.

Photo credit: Arianna De Marco.

Fungus creates zombie bugs with a short afterlife

Dying on a bed of flowers might seem like a good way to go. Except it’s not when you’re a beetle suffering a gruesome fungal infection.

Goldenrod soldier beetles (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) feed and mate on flowers – and that’s where some of them meet their end, too. When infected with the fungus Eryniopsis lampyridarum, the beetles clamp their jaws onto a flower and die soon after.

Hours later and still stuck to the flowers, the dead beetles’ wings snap open as though ready to fly. With their wings raised, these beetles even attract mates – live males were seen having sex with zombie females.

Read more about the zombie beetles here at New Scientist.

Photo credit: Donald Steinkraus

This tree leans more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Image-1Never mind the Leaning Tower of Pisa – this is the leaning tower of pines.

Cook pines are towering trees that were once restricted to their native home of New Caledonia, an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Through cultivation, they have taken root across tropical, subtropical and temperate regions around the world.

The trees often have slightly tilting trunks. Scientists have now noticed a bizarre pattern in their tilt: they lean south in their northern range and north in their southern range.

Find out why they lean in opposite directions in my story for New Scientist.

Photo Credit: Matt Ritter

Tadpoles piggyback on strangers to avoid getting eaten — by siblings

Newborn poison frogs of Peru have quite an appetite. If left home alone in their hatching pool, the ravenous tadpoles will eat each other. To keep the tadpoles from gorging on their siblings, their doting father will carry them one at a time on his back and drop them in separate pools, where other food is available.

Some frog fathers, however, abandon their young. For unknown reasons, these males leave and never return to fetch their developing offspring.

But there’s a twist in the tale. To find out what that is, read the full story at Live Science.

Photo credit: Lisa M. Schulte

Female dragonflies drop dead to avoid males

Moorland Hawker Dragonfly-1-Credit-Rassim KhelifaOnce a female dragonfly has mated, all she is interested in doing is laying eggs and getting on with her life. So, when stalked by an unwelcome lover (or two), she crashes to the ground and plays dead. When the duped males eventually leave, the female flies off. The behavior was reported recently in the journal Ecology.

This may seem counter-intuitive, for one “purpose” of a species is to leave as many offspring as possible. But female dragonflies “know” what’s best for them. And what’s that? Find out in my story for Live Science.

Photo credit: Rassim Khelifa

Slow slimy slugs slaughter songbirds

What harm could a slimy little critter slowly crawling on the forest floor possibly do to a bird? A lot, it turns out. Slugs are shell-less mollusks that have a specialized mouth with a sandpaper-like structure. That rough surface can easily rip the skin and eyes off of a baby bird, leaving the chick to fight for its life.

Many don’t survive.

To be sure, this chick-icide by slugs is rare, European scientists now report. Still, they note, it could become a problem for ground- and shrub-nesting birds if slug numbers climb.

Justyna Chachulska is a graduate student at the University of Zielona Góra in Poland. Katarzyna Turzańska studies at the University of Wrocław, also in Poland. In 2014, both PhD students were monitoring nests of the common whitethroat (Sylvia communis), a mid-size European warbler. They were on the outskirts of the city of Wrocław.

The season was wet and cold. As a result, the ground teemed with slugs. One day, the young scientists noticed a slug in a nest with three newly-hatched chicks. They couldn’t imagine this slug posed a threat to the baby birds. So, they carried on with their work on other nests. But when they returned to the same nest the next day, two nestlings were dead. The third was missing.

To know how this avian murder mystery was solved, read the full story over at Science News for Students.

Photo Credit: Andrzej Wuczyñski

For these bees, being the firstborn girl is a curse

Some small carpenter bees have a clever way of getting help with their domestic chores, such as raising their young. The mom forcibly turns her firstborn daughter into a maid and babysitter. The mom does this by underfeeding that eldest bee. This daughter not only gets small portions of food but also a diet especially low in protein, new research shows. And before long, this bee is the runt of her brood — and bullied by her mom.

In bees and some other insects, growth of the young largely depends on how much food they get. So, by tinkering with their diet, a mother can control her offspring’s size.

Small carpenter bees are a type of solitary insect. No hives for them. Adult females carve a tunnel into the dead, broken stem of a flowering plant. The bees don’t eat that chewed wood but throw it away. Inside her tunnel, a mom will fashion a comfy nest in which to lay eggs and nurture her young. Ceratina calcarata is a common species of small carpenter bee in eastern North America. Only about the size of an eraser at the top of a pencil, females of this species nest in spring.

Read more about the fate of the firstborn girl over at Science News for Students.

Photo credit: Molly Jacobson